The Alps, straddling Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, have no shortage of places that are likely already on your bucket list—the iconic Matterhorn, the legendary Black Forest, and the picture-perfect village of Hallstatt. There are many other sights that, even if not as well known, should be on your must-see list: the Philosopher’s Path in Heidelberg, the Chapel Bridge in Lucerne, and the jaw-dropping castle at Kufstein. Perhaps the first step in planning a bucket-list itinerary to the Alps, however, is acceptance. You won’t be able to see it all, and you’re going to have to make some hard subjective choices among many alluring options. The good news, however, is that you pretty much can’t go wrong wherever you choose to travel.
The itinerary here starts in the old university town of Heidelberg, packed with intellectual history and culture, and ends in the Austrian lakeside town of Hallstatt, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site with its long history as a salt mining center that stretches back to the days of the Celts and Romans.
In between, you’ll pamper yourself with Black Forest spa treatments, discover the wonderfully walkable city of Lucerne, and admire the towering peaks around Zermatt. After visiting Innsbruck, the nearby Kufstein fortress town beckons. By the end of your trip, you are sure to have fallen under the spell of one of Europe’s most magical regions.
Itinerary / 7 Days
On the right bank of the Neckar, where the town meets the hills, the Heidelberg Suites’ historic luxury villa exudes a Florentine flavor in its design. If you want to opt instead for one of Germany’s classic grand hotels, the refined Europäischer Hof has been family run for generations and is located a short walk from the Old Town.
Before you embark on exploring Heidelberg, get a meal at the French-inflected restaurant Simplicissimus, now owned and run by the luxury Hotel Zum Ritter St. Georg, with its elegant interior and a courtyard for al fresco dining on summer days. Down by the river in a former grain mill, the Gasthaus zu Herrenmühle has a rustic ambiance though the dishes that emerge from the kitchen will satisfy even the most discriminating gourmet.
You’ll no doubt feel wiser after simply strolling the Philosophenweg, the hillside garden path where scholars once held forth as they also wandered along the same route. It is here that luminaries such as the poet Hölderlin once pondered what to write next. Between the town and the nearby Rhine, the summer Schwetzingen Palace and its Baroque gardens are like a mini Versailles.
Tip: What the Mozartkugel is to Salzburg, the Students’ Kiss is to Heidelberg. Make sure to order one at the famous Café Knösel.
DAY 2Black Forest
Head next to another university city, Freiburg, where the luxury Colombi Hotel is named for an old manor house at the edge of its old town. The family-run property has an indoor pool along with solarium and sauna facilities. With stunning views of the surrounding Black Forest hills and the town of Elzach down below, the Elztalhotel is a spa retreat with more than 5,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor pools.
In the Black Forest town of Baiersbronn you’ll find an impressive number of Michelin stars. The Schwarzwaldstube, in the hotel Traube Tonbach, is a three-star Michelin restaurant known for classic French cooking. The more casual Drexlers in Freiburg pairs its wines with market-fresh tasting menus.
The village of Schiltach sits 1,000 feet up in the Black Forest and if you’re tired of taking the waters, the Hirschgrund Zipline operations there might appeal instead. Another option for the afternoon is to head to the Dorotheenhütte in Wolfach for a tour of the glassworks and a visit to the glass museum.
Tip: Gin is probably not the first spirit you would associate with the Black Forest, but Monkey 47 produces what is arguably the world’s best. Make an appointment to take one of their distillery tours.
The name alone reveals the vibe at the family-run Romantik Hotel Julen, a prototypical wood and balconied chalet house. Perched high above town, the Omnia Mountain Lodge is a modern take on a traditional hotel and covers all moods with fireplaces for snugness and terraces to take in the wide-open vistas.
Restaurant 1818 is only a few years old even if the building it is located in has been around for two centuries. Here you can dine on traditional Swiss fare such as charcoal grilled meats. The Cervo Mountain Boutique Resort is a modern chalet-style hotel where CERVO Puro serves hearty dishes perfect for refueling either during or after a day of hiking, biking, or sightseeing.
As far as hikes in this part of the Alps, the Gorner Gorge is a short, easy trek along wooden paths, with stunning waterfalls offering a satisfying payoff. With the Matterhorn ever in view, the Five Lakes Hike can include an optional dip in the chilly moraine lake waters.
Tip: A flock of cute, and Instagrammable, Valais Blacknose sheep greet visitors to the Julen family farm at the edge of town.
Check into your hotel before heading out to explore the town. The grand Art Deco Hotel Montana Luzern recalls the heyday of luxury travel at the beginning of the 20th century. Whether you choose a lake or mountain view room, you can’t go wrong. Some ten miles away in the lakeside village of Beckenried, the intimate Boutique Hotel Schlüssel has only a dozen rooms in a house built in the early 1700s.
A Zunfthaus is an old guildhall, and in the Zunfthausrestaurant Pfistern facing the Chapel Bridge you dine below old wooden beams on traditional dishes. In the city’s Horw district, the Seehotel Sternen is a modestly sized hotel, but squeezes in several dining venues, including a terrace with lake views.
Sitting atop architect Jean Nouvel’s 1996 culture and exhibition center, the Culture and Convention Center Lucerne (KKL) is an art museum with a strong emphasis on historic Swiss landscape painting. Afterwards you can see some of the scenes that inspired the painters when you board a Lake Lucerne paddle steamer. A cruise to the opposite end of the lake and the small town of Flüelen, where the popular Gotthard Panorama Express starts, takes about three hours.
An old 1950s inn recently turned trendy, the Nala Hotel offers wonderful views of the mountains as well as the Stubai Alps. Another option, in the pedestrians-only area of the historic center, guests sleep snug in the modern urban rooms of the Hotel Weisses Rössl.
Laid back and unpretentious, Die Wilderin restaurant is known for its fresh, locally sourced ingredients. People travel a short way down the Inn River to the Swarovski Crystal World’s museum and gardens for seasonal gourmet cuisine and afternoon tea at Daniels Kristallwelten restaurant. Zaha Hadid’s other great Innsbruck contribution is her cool Bergisel ski jump tower where there’s a restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows that serves traditional Austrian dishes like veal cutlets and kräuter spätzle, egg-noodle pasta flavored with herbs.
The city has two must-see iconic landmarks. The hilltop Ambras Castle has protected the residents of Innsbruck for almost five hundred years, while the Old Town’s copper-tiled Golden Roof of the same era was built as a perch for the Emperor Maximilian and his bride to watch the tournaments and festivals in the square below.
Tip: Don’t leave Innsbruck without trying Tyrolean speck, a beechwood-smoked ham flavored with herbs and spices.
Right below the castle cliffs and facing the river, the Hotel Träumerei #8’s rooms are all individually decorated with quirky themes like “classic cinema.” Another option also near the river, the casual urban Arte Hotel has a wine bar with frequent live music.
On a chilly day you can drink your beer by the fire at the Bierol Taproom & Restaurant, though when the sun shines in the summer, you’ll want a table in the garden. Steaks cooked on a lava stone grill and a full wine cellar in its 15th-century house have long made the Auracher Löchl a popular restaurant.
Near Kufstein, the lush Kaisertal Valley, with its meadows and picturesque old chapel, lies within a nature reserve surrounded by craggy peaks. If you’ve long enjoyed drinking wine from Riedel glasses, you can visit their company’s factory just south of the castle.
Tip: A detour upriver, to the town of Ebbs, offers an opportunity to learn about how schnaps was traditionally made at the Brennerei Messerschmied.
The lakeside Seewirt Zauner hotel’s restaurant specializes, not surprisingly, in fresh fish, but you’ll also find game from the Dachstein Mountains on the menu. With one-off rooms in its three combined old houses, the Hotel Heritage Hallstatt serves a gourmet menu in its Im Kainz restaurant. Across the lake, the Restaurant Höllwirt treats diners to freshly caught fish in a house that has been in the same family since the 1700s. At the northern tip of the lake, and with a terrace under chestnut trees, the Restaurant Steegwirt in Bad Goisern is as traditional as Austrian inns get.
When you are not eating your way around Hallstatt, the 7,000-year-old Salzwelten, or Salt World, mines are a fun and fascinating peek into the ancient civilizations in this part of the Alps. Recently, a Skywalk viewing platform was added that cantilevers over the lake below at a height of 1,200 feet. On Hallstättersee lake, you can board one of the traditional salt transport boats for a fun cruise.
Tip: At Salzwelten’s shop, you can pick up some ancient Salzkammergut salt, known for its curative powers.